Accessibility links

World: Humanity's Hottest Weather Ever Is Upon Us

  • Don Hill

Consider the hundred-year floods last year in Central Europe. The drought and related forest fires this week on the Iberian Peninsula and in North America. And horrific monsoons this season on the Asian subcontinent, as well as related floods in India and Pakistan. What's going on? Climatologists tell RFE/RL that we're having weather extremes unmatched in human history. And that it is our own fault.

Prague, 8 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Are you sweltering in the heat? Is this the warmest summer you can remember? It is not your imagination.

The year 2003 is on the way, possibly, to being the warmest year ever recorded in human history. And the year 1998 -- only five years ago -- set the current record, followed by last year, 2002.

Temperatures across Europe have cooled slightly today after a week of sweltering heat. London on Wednesday registered a record high of 35.4 degrees Celsius (95.7 Fahrenheit). Paris broiled under 39.4 degree Celsius heat (104.7 Fahrenheit) that same day.

David Viner is a senior research scientist at the Climatic Research Institute of Britain's University of East Anglia. He told RFE/RL that what you are seeing and feeling -- wherever you are -- is far more than a local phenomenon.

"At the moment, most of the Mediterranean and Northwest Europe is experiencing very severe heat And temperature [records] are being broken across many parts of Europe. For instance, in Switzerland they have had the hottest summer so far in 250 years. Norway has had its warmest summer since 1925. As a result of the severe hot weather on the Iberian Peninsula -- Spain and Portugal -- we have seen some fairly devastating forest fires. And people now have been reported to be suffering from heat stress and dying as a result," Viner said.

That is not all. "In other parts of the world -- India, Pakistan -- we've seen very severe heat waves, you know, up to five degrees Celsius above normal. And this has been followed by a very severe monsoon which has produced very severe flooding, and the floods in India now are the worst in about 50 years," he said.

Side effects have been unmistakable. The heat wave searing Europe has ignited forest fires from the Atlantic Coast to the Balkan Peninsula, and has killed close to 40 people. In Portugal and Spain, forest fires have devastated immense plots of land and are still burning. Portugal has declared a state of emergency.

In Germany, authorities blamed possible arson for one fire west of Berlin made doubly dangerous because it ravaged a former military target range. "We are on a former army training ground, and that means there is a high degree of danger. There are a lot of unexploded munitions from World War II and even World War I, and fighting the fire is very difficult," German firefighter spokesman Lutz Seeland said.

The heat, fires, and other phenomena have devastated agriculture, and the economic effects are so huge that authorities say they are inestimable at this stage.

Across the world, in eastern China, summer temperatures have been so high that a camel in the Bengbu city zoo died of heat stroke after thermometers registered 39 degrees Celsius (102.2 Fahrenheit), still higher in the direct sun.

The climatological extremes being recorded comprise a new phenomenon.

Scientists have known for more than a century that natural climate variability occurs. One cause is changes in the amount of energy that the sun emits. Another is volcanic eruptions that send immense quantities of dust and gases like sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and that block some of the sun's energy from reaching the earth.

Gradual changes in the Earth's orbit cause cataclysmic weather changes but, as Viner pointed out, these are very long-term. "The large-scale changes that move from, say, glacial periods to nonglacial periods take place over tens of thousands of years. What we are seeing now is a change in the global temperature that has not [previously] been identified in what we call the historical record -- using ice cores, coal cores, tree cores, etc. You know, we've seen temperatures in the last 140 years rise at a rate which is unprecedented, and probably unprecedented in human history," he said.

Viner said in his opinion, scientific studies leave no further doubt. Global warming due overwhelmingly to humankind's industrial activities -- dumping what are being called "greenhouse gases" into the atmosphere -- is causing current weather extremes.

"Now we know what the problem is. We know what's causing it. We know that human activity at the moment is putting 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and all the other greenhouse gases as well. The main problem now is how we tackle it," Viner said.

The British climatologist said the problem is not going away. "You know, there's a big international effort going on to try to mitigate the effects of climate change. But that really involves major changes in society. You know, the Kyoto Protocol has been signed and hopefully is going to be ratified if the Russians sign it this year. But at the same time, we've got the U.S., which is actually dragging its heels and trying to slow down the whole process," he said.

U.S. objections to the Kyoto Protocol are that it would penalize the U.S. economy disproportionately, and that -- even if fully implemented -- would accomplish little. Viner conceded that Kyoto's value, if any, would be largely symbolic.

"Well, yes, Kyoto must be seen as one step up a ladder. If Kyoto is implemented by all countries -- all developed countries -- it will have a negligible impact upon the climate system," he said. "But Kyoto must be seen as the first step. It must be seen as the first part of a process. It may take 50 to 100 years, you know. It is going to be a long haul really to get the levels of greenhouse-gas emissions down, and then subsequently the impact upon the concentrations in the atmosphere."

Earlier this year, two Danish meteorologists created a mathematical model of Central European weather patterns and published their disheartening findings in the scientific journal "Nature." They concluded that last year's hundred-year floods in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and Austria are likely to repeat themselves soon. Researcher Jens Christensen told our correspondent that terrible droughts will be commonplace in coming years.

"At the same time, when we analyze what happens to precipitation events that are more intensive, we find that those intensive events are [going to be] more intense than they are today for many parts of Europe. So in very short, you could say that -- although it is going to rain less -- when it rains, it [will] pour," he said.

Christensen said the Danish model is unable to predict when new floods might occur in Central Europe, except to say that they are most likely in spring during heavy snow melts, and in late summer. He says that the model indicates that they will be more frequent and more severe.

XS
SM
MD
LG